Silence can be deafening.
Driving onto the medical campus on a Monday morning feels like 2300 on a Friday night. The traffic is minimal. There is no one around. I compete with no one for parking spots. When I get out of the car, my footsteps echo through the empty parking structure.
I first meet people at the front doors, where I go through screening. “No, I haven’t been coughing.” “No, I’m not short of breath.” I have my temperature taken, and I’m given a sticker that tells others that—at least upon arrival—I am afebrile.
I keep walking. I meet no one else. The hallways are empty. The elevator comes right away. My footsteps echo down the ward.
We’ve been watching, waiting as COVID-19 has swept the globe. Many of us initially felt this was a problem that would remain isolated to China, as MERS and SARS did.
And then Italy ran out of ventilators.
I think this was the day most of us (myself included) realized this was not MERS or SARS. This was coming for our hospitals and our homes. This was when we realized that although this was a minor disease in many, it was a severe enough disease in enough people that it could devastate our healthcare system.
So we canceled surgeries, encouraged people to stay home when appropriate. We canceled well-checks and follow-ups. We canceled elective visits. We managed things outpatient that would have normally been done inpatient. We managed things over the phone that would have normally been done during a clinic visit. We’ve expanded telehealth and done anything we could to keep people out of the healthcare establishment and at home safely.
We’ve watched Washington and California and New York grapple with this disease. We’ve watched as they run out of space for patients or created makeshift morgues. We’ve watched them make desperate pleas for physicians, nurses, ventilators, and PPE. We’ve seen the overcrowding, the bed crunch, the makeshift hospitals and ICUs.
Now, the rest of us wait. We’ve watched the patients start to trickle in, more and more every day. We’ve watched the number of cases exponentially increase, the line seemingly more and more vertical every day. We’ve made plans for staffing, for makeshift units. But largely, it feels like waiting. We know a freight training is coming, because we’ve seen it hit China, Italy, Seattle, and New York. But we don’t know when.
It is a horrible, terrible feeling to be waiting and watching. I am trying to sleep and exercise and eat well and laugh and meditate. I am trying to appreciate the now, when I can go home and see my family. When everyone I love is still OK.
But we know it is coming.
Our fates were sealed months ago, when COVID-19 began traversing the globe on the backs of the asymptomatic. Our case rates tomorrow will be determined by exposures that happened two to fourteen days ago. Our hospitalizations will be days beyond that.
So, for now, I try to smile. I try to relax. I try to drink a glass of wine after work and laugh through virtual happy hour with my family.
But it’s coming. And the silence is deafening.
Katie Berlin, DO is an Internal Medicine/Pediatric trained physician practicing out of Milwaukee, WI.